Romans has occasionally been viewed as a timeless treatise, a “compendium of Christian doctrine” (Melanchthon) that transcends time. However, while it certainly speaks to every generation of Christians, the message of Romans is embedded in a document written to a particular audience in a definite situation. To put it simply, Romans is a letter. But what kind of letter? There were many types of letters in the ancient world, ranging from brief requests for money from children away from home to long essays intended to reach a wide audience. Paul’s letters generally fall somewhere between these extremes, but Romans is further toward the latter end of the spectrum than any other letter of Paul’s (with the possible exception of Ephesians). To be sure, Romans is written within a set definite circumstance that is enumerated in the epistolary opening and closing of the book (Romans 1:1-17; 15:14-16:27). But within this framework, Paul pursues an argument that develops according to the inner logic of the gospel (D, A. Carson, Douglas J. Moos, Leon Morris, Introduction to the New Testament: Romans).
The argument of Romans reflects the principles promoted by the rhetorical handbooks of antiquity. Aristotle refers to four parts of a typical discourse as containing an introduction, a statement or narrative of the issue, the proof, and an epilogue. Cicero advises the rhetor to organize his discourse in six sections, an exordium or introduction, a narratio or narration of the case, a partitio or statement of the thesis, a confirmatio or proof of the thesis, a reprehensio or rebuttal of opposing views, and finally a conclusio or conclusion. The Latin rhetorician Quintilius refers to similar categories whose nomenclature is quite useful in understanding Romans. The letter begins with an exordium, an introduction (1:1-12) which is followed by a brief narratio, a narration of the background of Paul’s intended visit to Rome (1: 13-15). Quintilius then refers to the main portion of the discourse, the probatio or proof of the case being argued (1:18-15:13). The next section according to Quintilius is the refutatio, the rebuttal of opposing views. However, since Romans is not a forensic letter, where a rebuttal of charges would be required, this section is missing. Finally, there is a peroratio, the conclusion of the letter that provides the practical appeal (15:14-16:27). Several Latin rhetoricians added a propositio or partitio, a brief statement of the thesis or enumeration of the issues placed between the narration and the proof, a detail that is matched in Romans 1:16-17. Paul’s letter therefore has a fivefold outline that would have been easily followed by the Roman audience conditioned to understand classical rhetoric (Robert Jewett, Following the Argument of Romans, 383).
A sketch of the argument of the book of Romans can be broken down into these rhetorical categories.
Part One: Exordium (Introduction, 1:1-12). Here Paul introduces himself to the divided Roman audience, stressing his apostolic authority, defining his gospel in a preliminary way, and thanking God for their faith. He concludes with the main purpose of his letter, his forthcoming visit to Rome for the sake of the world mission.
Part Two: Narratio (Narration, 1:13-15). Paul describes the background of his missionary project to come to Rome, which has thus far been frustrated.
Part Three: Partitio (Partition, Thesis Statement, 1:16-17). Paul states the major contention of the letter concerning the gospel as the powerful embodiment of the righteousness of God.
Part Four: Probatio (Proof, 1:18-15:13). Paul proves that the righteousness of God, rightly understood, has transforming and unifying implications for the Roman house churches and their participation in world mission. There are four elaborate proofs in Romans: an extensive confirmation of the thesis followed by three wider-ranging amplifications. Though couched in the generalities typical for demonstrative discourse, each proof had an important bearing on the situation in the Roman house churches and the issue of the mission to Spain.
Part Five: Peroratio (Peroration, or conclusion, 15:14-16:27). This consists of an appeal for the cooperation of the Roman house churches in missionary activities in Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain. With the elimination of two interpolations identified by a number of contemporary exegetes (the warning against heretics in 16: 17-20a and the concluding doxology in 16:25-27), this peroration is organized in five distinct sections: (A) The recapitulation of Paul’s missionary calling and strategy (15:14-21); (B) An appeal to participate in Paul’s present and future missionary plans (15:22-33); (C) A recommendation of Phoebe as the patron of the Spanish mission (16:1-2); (D)
Greetings and commendations between potentially cooperating missionary leaders (16:3-16, 21-23); and (E) The epistolary benediction (16:20b) (Robert Jewett, Following the Argument of Romans, 386-389).
Possibly, the remarkable coherence of Paul’s argument would be more easily grasped by using the logical categories taught by ancient rhetoricians. The terms “confirmation,” “amplification,” “ratiocination” (reasoned thought) and “comparison” were developed in classical rhetoric to describe typical phases in the organization of proofs.